Small business: SMEs hiring staff - Brett Wells

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Brett Wells, director of Rockshop, a music business which has 30 stores in New Zealand, four wholesale companies, a publication and a private music venue called Backbeat and Rockshop Radio

Torey Leggett, Brett Wells, Mick Webb and Paul Skipper from The Rockshop.
Torey Leggett, Brett Wells, Mick Webb and Paul Skipper from The Rockshop.

In late 2010 it bought KBB Music. The company employs nearly 200 staff. Mick Webb and Paul Skipper started Rockshop together in 1986 and almost immediately hired Torey Leggett. With Brett Wells, the four share 26 years of working together. Director, Wayne McIntyre, has 12 years in the industry.

When you were hiring in the early days, what sorts of senior people were you trying to attract?

We never had any real sort of game plan regarding staff hiring, especially senior staff. What we did know, however, was what sort of people we DIDN'T want! And that was the entrenched ethic of the industry at the time. Rockshop was a brash new business model -volume purchases, heavy discounting, aggressive marketing and dynamic service. We wanted people who were prepared to be different, to do things better, to give the customers what they had been missing up till then: choice, value and service.

My own experience of music stores as a young wannabe was awful. You couldn't touch anything, you weren't allowed to play and any instrument of quality, brand or repute was priced beyond what I thought I could ever afford.

There was no encouragement and no service.

From day one, I was determined that no client would ever experience that lack of interest and encouragement. All the other guys on the board are exactly the same.

How did you find the right people?

The music industry in NZ was and is relatively small and very well connected.

You know who is good and who isn't through their reputation in the industry.

People with expertise, credibility, ethics and personality found their way to Rockshop simply because it was a better experience as a customer than anywhere else. Every Rockshop staff member then, and now, is a customer first.

What are you looking for in your employees?

Passion is such an overused term it has lost currency. But I cannot think of a word that better describes what we look for. You HAVE to be passionate to work in this industry. You won't get rich, save a life, develop a cure for cancer or put out a fire..but you can guide, advise, mentor and support musicians at all levels. You will meet and work with those who will be the next generation of performing and recording artists in NZ and around the world; you will sell a pre school teacher a ukulele to play songs to her kids; you will advise a parent which pointy guitar and Marshall amp will be the coolest one for their son to play and win at RockQuest.

You simply HAVE to be a musician. Period.

And we are not selling fridges; we're selling dreams.Unless you understand that at a fundamental level and can relate, you have no credibility.

What do you need to offer your employees?

You need to understand, unequivocally, what it is your business does; what makes it different; what your clients want from you and how you want to deliver that experience.
Sounds like a tall order but really, it's quite straightforward.

Once you define the answers to those questions, you then look at the candidates you have and see how they answer those questions.

What skills do they have that will enhance your company?

Will their personality fit the team?

Are they in it for themselves or do they appreciate the absolute requirement for the whole group to work together?

A really basic one for me is..do they GET what Rockshop is all about?

A simply unbelievable number of potential employees do no research whatsoever about Rockshop. Who do we support? Where are we? What's our story? How can you make us better based on what you have seen / understand about our business.

What have you learned about managing staff?

We are providing development paths and opportunities internally for senior roles at least.

As the company has grown dramatically over the last 25 years, new positions have become necessary, such as product managers, technical staff, HR, and this has provided natural growth opportunities for those with talent and desire to improve.

Your best resources are most often the ones right in front of you that have not been identified. When you grow quickly and are constantly reverse engineering the structures you need to support the current setup and overlooking your internal talent pool is all too easy.

What tips would you give start up businesses on hiring the right key people early on?
Get help straight away. Seriously.

Set aside a budget to work with a recommended HR consultant. Find one who has experience in your business or you can relate to. Get a recommendation. Join LinkedIn and ask for recommendations. Join a business networking group. Join your industry's professional body. Find your person, get a scope, get a price and get on with it.

There are a million stories about how frightening hiring staff can be. But if you know the rules of engagement, and have someone in your corner with good advice, it's not hard.

Do your due diligence. Check everything..then check it again. Faking references and credentials is easy.

Making a good hiring decision can be the boost you need to succeed. A bad hire can poison your business, destroy relationships and motivation.

You need to have all the tools to terminate a poor relationship quickly, cleanly and without consequences - financial or emotional.

Are you there now?

I can honestly say, we are finally in a place where our HR infrastructure actually matches the requirements of the business. Much of the time we only just kept up; often we were fighting a rearguard action, responding with policy and paperwork after the issue. We built the edifice then had to figure out how to put the structure behind it. It's taken me 26 years to get there and only with the help of some immensely committed staff who learned on the job like I did. None of us has any formal HR qualifications.

I only got into the HR role because no-one else wanted to. So I did a one day course on employment law, wrote the first employment agreement and embarked on a rollercoaster learning -on-the-job- journey.

It's a story that causes no end of mirth among my colleagues at the Institute of Directors: Only the start up guys really get how insane that is to do unsupported.

The negative is that much of what we now have in place took longer than it should have.
The positive is, we developed systems, policies, procedures, approach and language that suited our business as it was developed from within. Me and my HR support team, had no preconceptions or theoretical background to draw on. We saw an issue, we dealt with it in an immediate, and pragmatic way.


Next week: You would think that any company which has fast growth has nothing to complain about. But sometimes very fast growth can bring a business to its knee if they don't have the systems in place and the advisers on hand. Tell us if you have had the good fortune to be in this situation and survive.

- NZ Herald

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